The building where my father opened his first optical practice is still there, only now it is Pizza Hut. Before that it was occupied by Fifth Avenue, a ladies’ fashion retailer. Unlike these shops, his premises did not extend to the whole building however, but to a tall narrow section at the left hand side as you stand and look at it from Red Lion Street. He started as a self-employed optician just before the war and must have taken the shop in Orford Place on a 21 year lease in 1938. This lease fell due in 1959 and that was the year he moved to 29 Surrey Street. Another 21 years would take us to 1980, which is when Pizza Hut took over. While the alterations were in progress they revealed the old decorations inside, and the red and gold wallpaper which used to line my father’s waiting room re-emerged briefly into the daylight.
Earl of Orford is the title acquired by the Norfolk farmer who became the first British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Orford Place takes its name from the third Earl, also called Robert, who was the grandson of the first Earl. He served the county of Norfolk in several capacities during the second half of the eighteenth century, his positions including Lord Lieutenant and Colonel of the local Militia (then the equivalent of the TA). Before taking this Earl’s name Orford Hill had been named Hog Hill for centuries. This was the medieval swine market of the city. It must have smelled rather rank.
When the lease of his shop in Orford Place came up for renewal my father would have paid the considerably increased rental to remain in the retail centre of the city, but other tenants of the building were unwilling to do so. He took a leap into the unknown by buying a house with no retail shopfront. Luckily for him the gamble paid off, partly because he was able to retain a signboard advertising his presence on the portico at 29 Surrey Street. This would not have been allowed by the authorities because this was by 1959 a listed building, but fortunately a sign already hung there, from before the days of listed buildings. When we arrived it still announced The Angel Hotel and he need no permission to alter the name to Mason and Gantlett Ltd Opticians. When things at work weren’t going well Surrey Street became ‘Worry Street’, as earlier Orford Place had been ‘Awful Place’; but fortunately things seldom got to that stage.
The property at 3 Orford Place extended to four floors. At the bottom was a basement which he used as a workshop. On the ground floor was a reception area which he also used as a patients’ waiting room; and on the second floor were the sight-testing rooms. I believe there was originally just one testing room for my father, but when business improved during the early months of 1939 this was divided to provide a room for his partner John Gantlett.
You will notice that I have not mentioned the first floor. This was used as a social club for the employees of the Eastern Counties bus company and the stairs continued past the floor with no point of contact from the optician’s shop. The ground floor room had two small shop windows, one either side of the door, where he displayed spectacles (and at Christmas a crib). This room was where the receptionist sat; Shirley Grand (who became Mrs Gladwell) was the one who I remember best, but before her was Mary Westgate. The receptionist had a switchboard in front of her where, by transferring jack plugs, she could put callers through to my father’s testing room. Culver’s optical works in Hall Road was also on the switchboard, a relic of the time when it had been Mason and Gantlett’s works. All the time from the 1950s until 1972 when my father retired the man in charge of putting lenses in frames at Culver’s was Gerry Sayer. He continued until Culver’s closed (a victim of the change to diamond edging machines which enabled opticians’ shops to fit the lenses to customers’ frames themselves) and finally retired from an optician’s shop in the city in 1993.
To return to the history of the shop in Orford Place; with the advent of the Second World War the public had more pressing concerns than having their eyes tested and my father had not been in business long enough to build up a financial reserve against lean times. He was rescued from bankruptcy by the regulation that all bicycles had to have rear lights. The blackout restrictions had made cyclists particularly vulnerable and until then lights had not been compulsory on bikes. The supply rapidly sold out, enabling my father to step in to making rear lights of his own. Eventually Ever Ready got their production line going, but not before my father and his partner had produced a large quality for the cyclists of Norfolk. Some could still be seen on cycles around Norwich into the 1960s. These rear lamps were produced in the basement at Orford Place. The experience of manufacturing encouraged him to make spectacles frames in the basement after his short period in the Royal Army Ordinance Corps (from which he was medically retired in 1940). John Gantlett was called up into the Navy after my father’s time in the RAOC, so there was always someone there to man the shop.
The basement became a hive of activity in the years straight after the war. Two young lads, Pat Dunham and ‘Jimmy’ Wickham (and others from time to time) were employed there making spectacle frames. (Pat’s sister Peggy was the first of my father’s receptionists.) These spectacle frames my father used himself but also sold to other opticians. Business boomed once the NHS began and spectacle frames briefly became completely free to the public. Jimmy’s name was really Noel, but my father said he couldn’t be Noel and called him Jimmy instead, a name that stuck for ever afterwards. There was a diesel generator in the basement to cope with power cuts which were frequent in those days of austerity. Production moved out when my father had the works in Hall Road built. I remember the basement workshop as a place empty of people although still full of machinery.
The second floor had two testing rooms, my father’s and John Gantlett’s (‘Uncle’ John). Since Uncle John had left in the early 1950s when the business suffered financial difficulties, when the NHS introduced prescription charges, John Gantlett’s room was unused. On this top floor there was also a smaller room used as an optical workshop, and the only lavatory in the building. These two rooms, the workshop and the loo, had windows to the rear of the building, looking out over the Lamb Inn yard.
My father was a frequent visitor to the Lamb Inn, where he was on good terms with the publican Jack Hubbard. The Hubbard family had been associated with the pub since the First World War and despite his health and weight problems Jack survived well into the 1950s. Apart from my father’s enjoying the odd drink, this made good sense because Jack Hubbard let him park his car in the pub yard. There were a number of benches for drinkers in the yard, and although I was much too young to go in the pub I could sit in yard while my father had his half pint with me outside. I am sure he bought me a soft drink – probably a PAJ (pineapple juice). These benches had been the seats on the upper deck of a Norwich tram, with the backs of the seats hinged at the base so that the passengers could always face the front when the tram reversed at the end of the line. The yard is still there, but there are now no cars and no tram seats either!